From the author: When a mother's love isn't enough, how far will she go to save her sick child?
After the bombs rained like fire and the riots faded, my daughter and I found ourselves alone in her room, our home surrounded by silence so deep it gouged my soul. The grandfather clock downstairs chimed once an hour, and rattled too, the cracked glass panel vibrating with the chimes. In the silence between chimes, Cara's heart beat too quietly, too slow, and out of sync.
Cara squeezed my arm, her breath labored and her face pale, like the ghost she was in danger of becoming. "Mama, am I dying?"
My heart hitched on a breath and for an endless moment I couldn't speak. "Yes, my love. Your heartsong is still fading."
Before the attack, the answer would have been different, but three long days had passed without power, water, or contact. No National Guard, no Red Cross. How many homes had fallen across the city, the state, the country? How many husbands and wives never made it home? How many children died waiting for life-saving surgeries?
Cara shifted onto her side. She cuddled Snickerpoodle, the relic of a windup doll my mom gave her last Christmas before she herself succumbed to illness. I rubbed Snickerpoodle's curly black hair, earning a weak smile from my daughter.
"Can you fix my heart?"
Just days ago, I'd fought for that very thing, but hospital rules prohibited me operating on family. The rules had changed, but without power or medical staff, how could I save Cara? "I'll think of something," I said and smiled, because her confidence in me was all she had left.
I snuggled her until the grandfather clock chimed again. The damned clock was the only sound, the only evidence we had survived. What made it special, a stupid invention of wood, gears and glass? I bolted upright. Gears.
I slipped out of Cara's bed and ran around the house, tossing supplies into Cara's backpack, then returned and lifted her too-light body in my arms.
Our two story home stood undamaged, the only one on this street now, but my Rav4 sat in the driveway surrounded by debris and a dangling gas cap. No matter, I had two feet. I hugged Cara to my chest; she wrapped her legs around my waist, rested her head on my shoulder, and we began the long walk to the hospital.
The sidewalks were damp with drying rain, puddles attracted to the cracks. The fires must have died during last night's rain, but the stench of smoldering rubber and flesh irritated my nostrils. I nudged Cara's face against my neck to protect her from it. Glass and debris carpeted the street right up to the hospital, blood spattered generously.
Whenever we passed a body, I averted my gaze. There was no one to help here, and no hope of finding my beloved David. If he hadn't returned home after the riots, he never would.
I stepped through the busted hospital doors, breathless after the long hike. Sunlight streamed in through window frames, creating pockets of glimmering light across the shadowed corridors. It got us to the main stairway and up to the O.R., which was windowless and dark. I felt my way around and lay Cara on a gurney, then raided the emergency supplies for a flashlight.
The stench in the room was worse for regaining my vision. Someone had abandoned a surgery, left their patient, her surgical meds.
Whispering a prayer for the dead woman, I thanked her for sharing her medication. I loaded the gurney with surgical tools and bandages, everything my imaginary nurse would hand me during Cara's surgery. I kept my backpack close, the metal contents clinking together now and again. It sounded like hope. Or perhaps insanity.
After a quick search of the second floor, a corner office aglow with the late morning sun became my operating room. I scrubbed with bottled water and alcohol until my fingers burned, then washed and laid out all my tools: meds, needle, thread, surgical knives, gears harvested from the grandfather clock and more. My gaze fell on the gears, too large to fit into my daughter's chest cavity now that I can compare them. Tears stung my eyes. I'd come too far to give up on Cara, too far to admit defeat.
Cara followed my movements, hugging Snickerpoodle, a doll that has lasted the last hundred years through generations of my family, a doll that was about to outlive us. "What are we doing, Mama?"
"Fixing your heart, love."
"Then we'll go find Daddy?"
Now was not the time for the truth. "Soon as you're up for it."
I leaned close, stroked the doll's brown face. We'd repainted the eyes twice since Cara acquired it, once to give her sight and the second to have the eyes match Cara's brown.
How had such a thing survived? My lips went suddenly dry, my breath stolen from my lungs. "Cara, I have to ask a favor. It's important."
She nodded, the barest of movements.
"Would Snickerpoodle like to donate some organs?"
"Will I get her back?"
"Yes, but she'll be a little different."
Cara bit her lip, considering, then smiled. "I'll still love her."
"She's a brave little girl." After kissing Cara's forehead, I started an IV with a small dose of the sedative. Waiting for it to take effect, I washed her chest with alcohol, swirling little dances with my fingers, tickling, sending my sweetheart off to dreamland with a smile.
The sunlight pushed through the room and faded with the afternoon as I sliced my daughter's chest open. Her little heart was warm to the touch. Its song pulsated against my fingers as softly as any heart I'd ever touched. My life's work was in the operating room, fixing little hearts, and I'd heard so many over the years, each with its own cadence and tone. Nothing tore me down faster than this song, which I've heard before, in the chests of little ones I couldn't save.
My own heart drummed too quickly, but my hands were steady, and the augmentation eased into place. Closing and stitching went smoothly. I waited until dusk, pacing, watching her chest rise and fall until I couldn't keep my eyes open.
I melted to the floor and curled into dreamless sleep, waking only when Cara whimpered.
"I'm here." I sprang up, panicked, and gripped her bed rail for balance.
Cara squinted and looked around. "Where's Snickerpoodle?"
"Here," I pressed the doll into her hands.
"And her winder-upper?"
I took Cara's hand and put it to her left side, next to her heart. The metal was warm between our fingers, warmer than her heart had been last night. I'd have to teach her to wind and clean the key, but we had time for that. Maybe not forever, but today and as many stolen moments as my clockwork daughter could rally, if only she accepted the changes, and if the magic worked. Magic lived in the doll; had protected my ancestors right up until my mom gave it to Cara. Nothing else could explain the unlikely events leading to our survival.
She listened. "Mommy, what happened to my heartbeat?"
"Snickerpoodle isn't the only one who's a little different now," I said softly. "Tell me, love, how does it feel?"
"My heart hums, like Snickerpoodle used to."
"Is it humming a good song?"
Cara caressed the empty key socket then explored her side again. Her cheeks were flush for the first time in a year. She took a deep long breath. "You made me a new heartsong, Mommy, and it's good."
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.